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INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

A little over thirty years ago, in August 1982, Ruth First stood at the corner of her desk in her office at the Centre of African Studies (CEA) in Mozambique, chatting and teasing while she opened a package. It contained a bomb sent by the security services of apartheid South Africa. The explosion killed her, blew out the wall of her office and left many people engulfed in a cloud of confusion, anger, stillness and loss.1 There are streets named for her in all the major cities of South Africa. There is even a Ruth First Square in The Hague, a remnant from the days when The Netherlands had influential solidarity organizations, with connections to most of the world's major liberation movements — and when such liberation movements had an important role in international politics. Ruth First is known as a loved and respected comrade of many of the great names in the history of the African National Congress, amongst them Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and Ruth First's husband, Joe Slovo. The reasons for this admiration and the weight of her political and intellectual legacy are not, however, so well known, even in South Africa itself. This essay traces a small part of that legacy by locating her within a field with which she is not typically associated — development studies.

The inclusion of Ruth First in this Legacy section of Development and Change may seem rather odd. It is usually reserved for essays on scholars who have made important contributions to debates on development issues and to development theory. Ruth First came late to the field of development studies and in most of her work theory is implicit rather than a topic of discussion. Her writing is usually measured and informative, yet she saw writing as a tool of political struggle in a way that many academics would find disturbing. Indeed she meant to disturb. Ruth First saw herself as an African revolutionary and she envisioned that revolution in Marxist terms. She remained a member of the South African Communist Party (into which she was born, so to speak), until her death, though not always in good standing. She considered party membership no justification for suspension of critical thought or for swallowing without protest positions she considered wrong.

Yet if we consider the peculiar role of development studies as a kind of intermediary, or even broker, between discipline-based academic social science and the institutional politics of development, then it is easier to see why it is important to place Ruth First within development studies. The questions we ask and the ways they are formulated emerge from political processes. What we contribute sometimes does no more than mirror the preoccupations of our funders, albeit critically, but at the core of development studies lies also a concern with responding to the emancipatory demands of movements for social justice and the redress of inequality. Few revolutionary intellectuals have become, like Gramsci, renowned political theorists, but others have questioned and redefined theory in political struggle. Without them development studies could easily have become a technicist conservative exercise in social engineering. Late in her life Ruth First crossed over to a formal academic position in development studies, but that was not where her contribution began or ended.

THE WORKING LIFE

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

Ruth First did a degree in social science at the University of Witwatersrand, finishing in 1946, a time of political ferment in South Africa and on the Wits campus where a few politically engaged non-white students were being admitted. Ruth First came from a politically active communist family and was herself both engaged with the possibility of socialist revolution and enraged by the racial injustice of South Africa. At Wits, she was a friend and comrade of Harold Wolpe and she soon became close to Ismael Meer, then a brilliant and charismatic student, formally of law and informally of Marxist anti-racist revolutionary politics. Through Ismael Meer she met another impressive law student, Nelson Mandela. Meer's flat was a meeting place for study-groups, political arguments and planning for a better world. It was a place that helped to shape many of those who became core thinkers in the Congress Alliance (Pinnock, 2012: 8–9).

After university Ruth First worked for a while compiling statistics on social services in the Johannesburg City Council, but left to join the support movement formed around the great African Miners’ strike of 1946. She became an investigative journalist and editor writing pieces that documented both the injustices of apartheid and mass resistance to it for Left newspapers and pamphlets. These appeared irregularly, under constant threat of censorship or outright banning. She wrote on the collaboration between the police who detained undocumented workers and the white potato farmers who forced them to work as seasonal labourers on their farms (First, 1959). She explained how the Chamber of Mines used a regional network based on political disenfranchisement, fixed-term recruitment and the hostel-system to undercut the wages of black workers on the gold mines (First, 1961). She described the mass bus boycott with which black workers in the townships met an increase in bus-fares, for seven weeks trudging for hours to work until a subsidy coupon was reintroduced (First, 1957). She lucidly explained why many black women were refusing to carry an identity document when the pass system that controlled the entry of black men into urban areas was extended to women; she also explained how the government used duplicity to persuade some women to carry the pass (First, 1956 in Pinnock, 2012: 41–42).

After First left South Africa in 1964 to avoid a second period of imprisonment, she prepared hundreds of programmatic documents, talks and interviews for anti-apartheid conferences and submissions to international agencies. She wrote well-researched and argued books, aimed at broad audiences, on issues in African politics. It was on the strength of this work that she was offered academic posts in African Studies and the sociology of development, first as a research fellow at Manchester and then as a lecturer in development studies at Durham. She also became a founding member of the editorial collective of the Review of African Political Economy. She took leave from Durham for a brief period of teaching at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and in her final five years returned to Southern Africa to be Director of Research and Convenor of the Development Course of the CEA at Eduardo Mondlane University.

In exile, Ruth First also experimented with other genres of writing. She expanded a BBC film script on her time in detention in South Africa into a probing, self-doubting memoir, again aimed at a broad audience, 117 Days (First, 1965). Later, influenced by feminist debates around the intersection of class, race and gender in personal histories, she co-wrote with Ann Scott (First and Scott, 1980) perhaps her most academic book, a biography of the South African novelist Olive Schreiner. At the CEA, where research was collectively organized, she functioned as editor as much as author, overseeing a stream of research reports, and setting up a new journal, Estudos Moçambicanos (Mozambican Studies), intended to bring topical academic research to the wider reading public of Mozambique. One of her most cited books, Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (First, 1983), was the outcome of a collective research project at the CEA. It initially appeared in Portuguese as a research report of the CEA, drafted by many authors though crafted by First into a unified statement and subsequently reworked by her for publication in English. She apologized to CEA staff for putting her name on a collective work, but was convinced by the publisher's argument that her name would bring in more readers than the CEA acronym or a very long list of names.

Throughout her adult life, Ruth First also wrote contributions for internal documents and public statements issued by the different revolutionary organizations to which she belonged — the Young Communist League, then the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Congress Alliance and then, when it accepted white members, the African National Congress (ANC). She was elected, for example, to the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter (Pinnock, 2012: 13–14). The committee, most of them under banning orders that barred them from public appearance, read through the thousands of responses that the Congress Alliance received to its appeal that South Africans describe what demands they had for a new South Africa. Through intense political discussions and multiple drafts they brought these demands together in the 1955 Freedom Charter.

In the late 1970s, in Maputo, Ruth First wrote an analytical discussion guide for ANC cadres entitled ‘Revolutionary Propaganda at Home and Abroad’ (First, n.d. in Pinnock, 2012: 102–17).2 A great deal of contemporary discourse analysis in development studies is devoted to the deconstruction of propaganda. Quite to the contrary, this guide is about using social analysis to choose and address issues that would mobilize people; to decide which audiences to focus on and how to reach them and about out how propaganda work should relate to other areas of ANC political activity. The opening of the text shows how she thought about propaganda work:

Revolutionary propaganda at home and abroad constitutes two distinct fields of operation for practical propaganda purposes, demanding two sets of political analysis, or a single analysis from two vantage points.…

We do not conceive of propaganda as a mechanised, technical exercise — though, intrinsically, in these days of advanced communication techniques and mass media, our propaganda, too, must be technically adapted for the purposes it has to serve, of which more later — and plans for propaganda that draw too uncritically on methods used in the past, when different conditions of work obtained, or that are not grounded in sufficiently searching political perspectives will lead to errors and inadequacy. (ibid.: 102)

The targets of critique implicit in her use of the term ‘methods used in the past’ would have been immediately recognizable to cadres and comrades in Maputo.

CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

Looking back at the political questions that Ruth First addressed in her work and at the way she framed them, contemporary readers may find both issues and conceptual language dated. Of course this is to some extent true and such an avid reader of contemporary history as Ruth First would not have abstracted from the massive global and regional changes that have taken place since her death in 1982. Nonetheless, I do not think that Ruth First would speak of the ‘post-socialist’ condition. I expect that she would still be locating emancipatory struggles within a socialist project. A number of the issues she addressed remain politically alive in Southern Africa and elsewhere today. More centrally perhaps, so is the method with which she addressed them — using class analysis in identifying questions, in guiding research and in presenting findings to different kinds of audiences. Here it seems to me a rereading of her work is still enlightening for scholars of development studies concerned with the political relevance of their work today.

Ruth First read widely in social theory, both Marxist and not, but the educational text she wrote in Maputo on propaganda work discussed above (First, n.d. in Pinnock, 2012) provides a spare and classically Marxist analytical framework — use class analysis to understand what the issue really is and to identify possible allies on the question; know the strengths and weaknesses of your opposition and your own movement; identify ways of convincing potential allies to join your struggle; and link struggles together to expand the terrain of struggle and to strengthen your alliance. Being able to do this meant having a good understanding of economics as well as politics, and demanded a grounded historical understanding of the context of struggle. Post-modernists would probably find this text instrumentalist, reductionist and lacking in appreciation of nuance, complexity and hybridity. In political analysis her approach was always to push for the simplest possible theoretical account. The outcome of this method did not, however, produce work that was abstract or ungrounded. To the contrary, its power to convince lay in fact in its detail (and the elegance of the writing).

BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

First's method of class analysis is illustrated in a piece she wrote about the 1956 bus boycott in the townships around Johannesburg. Within a week of the Public Utility Transport Corporation announcing a 25 per cent increase in bus fares, black workers were refusing to take the bus and were walking to work. This is how First (1957: 57) described it:

But for five and six hours every day endless streams of walkers filled the pavements. Over the rise that obscures Alexandra Township from the main road came the eruption of workers in the dawn hours when mists and brazier fires mingle indistinguishably together. End to end the road was filled with shadowy, hurrying figures. Then the forms thinned out as the younger men with the firmest, sprightly step drew away from the older people, the women, the lame.

In the late afternoons and early evenings, the same crowds turned their backs on the city and again took to the roads. Down the hill the footsloggers found it easier (though by the tenth and eleventh weeks of the boycott many shoes were worn to pitiful remnants), the spindly-legged youngsters trotted now and then to keep up, the progress of the weary women was slower still, here a large Monday washing bundle carried on the head, there a paraffin tin, or the baby tied securely to the back.

In the pelting rain, through the suddenly fierce storms of the Johannesburg summer, running the gauntlet of police patrols, the boycotters walked on.

This moving description is accompanied by the information needed by the reader to interpret what is going on here in a larger sense. This short piece cites a statement from the government's Manager of the ‘Non-European Affairs Department’ stating that most workers could not pay the new fares since they were unskilled workers already spending more than one month's wages on transport. First links that to an analysis of the underlying cause, segregationist apartheid policies that combined tight controls on wages for black workers with locating townships on the distant outskirts of cities. She points out that some white drivers were defying government pronouncements and racial boundaries to give the boycotters lifts to the city. She discusses how the boycott around a particular economic issue became a political campaign around the right of black people to protest under a dispensation that placed them formally outside national political institutions. The transformation was in part a response to the intransigence of the government, in part a result of the organizational processes that maintained the unity of the boycott over time, and in part a result of the way the boycott became linked to previous struggles. She describes how the shouted slogan of the protest ‘Azikhwelwa’ (We Shall not Ride), evoked the cries of previous campaigns — ‘Mayibuye’ (May Africa Come Back), and ‘Asinamali’ (We Have no Money) from the squatters’ movement. The Congress Alliance did not organize the bus boycott, but it helped to give it political meaning. First's reporting, combining finely grained documentation of resistance with analysis of its political direction, was part of that process.

Intellectuals involved in contemporary emancipatory social movements may have their own theorists, ranging from anarchists to celebratory liberals, but in addressing the question of how political movements grow, I nonetheless think it would be useful for them to read critically but thoroughly Ruth First's work. They would (and should) find quite different answers to the theoretical questions, framed by Marxist theory, that informed her political reporting, but the questions themselves would be clarifying.

THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

Using class analysis as an instrument of political analysis meant critically rethinking a series of dogmatic propositions about the inherent revolutionary potential of the proletariat, a process in which Ruth First was assisted by radical South African scholars of quite different Left persuasions. She was particularly concerned with the politics of migrant labour, a question she addressed in South Africa in the 1950s and returned to in her later 1970s CEA research on Mozambican migrant mine labour. Marxist theory in the 1950s was dominated by a conception of the working class that focused political organizing almost entirely on the industrial urban contexts, bracketing the rural base of various revolutionary movements, some of which were at that time linked to nationalist struggles.

The lacunae in this analysis were particularly clear in South Africa where the mining sector, initially at the core of industrial development in South Africa, was based on a poorly paid labour force recruited on a cyclical basis in the rural areas of South Africa and neighbouring countries in the region, particularly southern Mozambique. In her writing on mine labour, First was concerned to show that peasants did not stand outside processes of proletarianization even when they continued to have access to land. She argued that rural poverty did not result from feudal backwardness but from the peculiar forms and terms of integration of the peasantry in the circuit of capital:

The mines claim that they generate economic growth; that ‘the economic distress of the (Union) Reserves is in part relieved by the gold mining industry’; that ‘they stimulate and stabilize the economy of tribal territories’. But then the mining industry always has been a past master at turning economic arguments on their head.

The truth is that migrant labour, the basis for the prosperity of the gold mining industry, has ruined the Reserves and African agriculture and has been responsible for the most blatant exploitation of the largest single labour force in South Africa. Migrant labour impedes agricultural development, keeps wages to rock-bottom levels, and is an excuse for not training a stable force of skilled labour. (First, 1961: 30)

By the time First returned to Southern Africa in the 1970s to work in Mozambique, there were significant changes in the migratory basis of mine labour. Unionization had led to increases in mine wages and more miners were being contracted from South Africa itself. The recruitment of Mozambican miners was cut to about a third of what it had been. First was particularly interested in how the new Frelimo socialist government would confront the problems posed by this dramatic drop in migrant labour in its agrarian policies. In the event, the classical Marxist focus on the formal proletariat was maintained in the importance given to state farms. There was no redistributional land reform in Mozambique at independence. Most settler farms were grouped into large state farms that became the focus of rural investment. Availability of consumer goods was drastically cut back in the countryside since it was believed that the peasantry could survive outside the market on the basis of its ‘subsistence’ production. Mechanization and cropping patterns, often planned with the technical assistance of advisors from European socialist countries, reinforced the patterns of seasonal labour recruitment of the settler farms without any analysis of the impact of this on rural incomes and consumption. (For an analysis of the disastrous economic and political outcomes of this see inter alia Wuyts, 1981.)

Since the CEA research in the 1970s, there have been further changes in South Africa's regional system of migrant labour. Mark Hunter (2010) has pointed out that the apartheid system of periodic male migration between reserve and urban locations has been displaced by generalized unemployment and a much more fluid movement of both men and women between rural and urban areas in South Africa. In such a context, class politics should be focusing not just on organized sections of the working class (represented in South Africa by COSATU) but also on the unemployed, contracted and casual workers, men and women, who move in and out of various kinds of jobs and some of whom are migrants from other countries in the region. Many mining companies, such as Lonmin, have ceased to operate hostels to house migrant workers, but the wages and housing allowances paid to many rock-face drillers are not sufficient for them to find decent housing in adjoining communities such as Marikana. There is in the development literature a great deal of celebration of the creativity and individual agency of informal workers, but much less on how these can be politically linked to processes of structural change. To return to Ruth First's work, class analysis in this context means addressing actually existing forms of proletarianization.

CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

One of Ruth First's early books, The Barrel of a Gun (First, 1970), dealt with a question that bothered her as she thought ahead to the future of then ongoing liberation struggles in Southern Africa: why were so many of the newly independent African states vulnerable to army interventions in politics? She used a series of case studies to argue that the answer was not the force of arms but a failure of politics. Specifically, the problem was the inability of oppositional politics to build a mass base for platforms that would counter the rapid development of a new African bourgeoisie both dependent on the smooth working of international business and disruptive of it.

Having said that, one of the most interesting arguments developed in the book has to do with the legacy of militarization in the organization of colonial administrations. She quotes an insightful passage from Delavignette (1950), participant observer of French colonialism:

The numerical weakness of the colonial generals’ troops impelled them to discover in the country to be conquered the resources necessary for completing the conquest: manpower by recruiting natives, intellectual power by studying the populations and getting used to them. Action undertaken in this way is patient and solid. It raises up native allies…. Conquest became organization on the march. (Delavignette, 1950 cited in First, 1970: 28)

First points out that until World War I, colonialism included only the most rudimentary forms of administration, dependent on force for legitimacy. Despite variation in colonial ideologies, all powers imposed an administrative grid that was still military in its organizational forms. This kind of broad, simplifying but analytically powerful, historical generalization is characteristic of First's work. Her version of historical materialism was profoundly rooted in the sense that the present in African politics is part of an ever-changing past and a future in becoming. She absolutely refused to accept the analytical divide between tradition and modernity. Post-modernist approaches to African politics in development studies today would probably indict First's historical sense for its focus on forms of colonial domination. Yet locating issues of contemporary governance such as ‘corruption’ in the enduring power of ‘African’ traditions such as taking a cut (‘eating’), tribute and gift exchange rather than in the practices of absolutist and authoritarian bureaucracies, provides few political entry points for oppositional class-based politics.

CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

There is one area of First's work where her analytical voice is more nuanced around issues of class than in most of her writing. This is in her reflection and writing on the intersections of class, race and gender in personal histories. Here we come away with questions, rather than clear answers. This did not particularly bother her. She often repeated that finding the right question was more important than coming up with the answer, though in her explicitly political writing she generally tried to provide one. Life in London and confrontations with feminist theory made her think again about the meaning of emancipatory struggles for women with different kinds of histories.

With Ann Scott, she set about rethinking the life of Olive Schreiner, a white South African writer who wrote a highly praised novel in her youth (The Story of an African Farm) but then for the rest of her life did most of her writing in support of various political causes — socialism, feminism, liberation, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, opposition to the Boer War. Schreiner rejected early on the religious fundamentalism of her family, but never abandoned her quest for a personal philosophy. She found it difficult to live in South Africa, not just psychologically but also physically; she had chronic asthma and periodic health breakdowns throughout her life. On the strength of her novel she made the connections that supported her first seven-year period of exile in London. She became a friend, almost a disciple, of Havelock Ellis, the Victorian scholar of sex, and was active in movements for women's equality. Yet she was never healthy nor happy in Britain either and returned to South Africa, married but lived most of the time apart from her husband, lost her only child right after childbirth, returned to Europe for another seven years, and finally came home again to South Africa where she became involved in one of Cecil Rhodes’ schemes and then lost confidence in him for his support for the Boer War.

Studies of Schreiner's work had tended to focus on her failure to match the brilliance of her first book, often suggesting that she dissipated her creativity in her diffuse involvement with various causes, neurotic concern with her own sexuality, and persistent illness. First and Scott take a very different angle — trying to understand Schreiner's life as an individual experience rooted in the possibilities and limitations of her times. They treat Schreiner's political writings just as seriously as they do her fiction. They do not judge her for her inconsistencies, paternalism and lapses in judgement. As Ruth First said at the time, her objective in writing biography was not to celebrate, nor even to evaluate, but to understand.

As one reads the book, one can imagine Ruth First asking herself, ‘what makes her different to me?’. Schreiner was, like her, a white South African woman, born to racial privilege, driven to revolt, exiled from South Africa yet yearning for it, finding that domesticity drained the practice of sexual equality, yet not wishing to fail at it. What does a revolutionary life mean for a woman in a society where the contradictions of race and gender intersect with those of class? The book provides no definitive answer to that question; in fact it forces readers to ask it for themselves. First thought that her own political options reflected alternatives shaped by the expansion of the ANC across all classes of the black population in the twentieth century, without which alliance politics would not have been possible. Yet for her, as for Olive Schreiner in the nineteenth century, sexuality, domesticity and women's equality remained issues not adequately addressed, sometimes even unspoken, in Southern African politics.

RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

Finally, in discussing the legacy of Ruth First in development studies, it is important to address the confrontation she had in print with Archie Mafeje, another important South African political intellectual. Ruth First did not spare her friends and comrades from the critical sharpness of her tongue, but she did not usually criticize them in print. In press her caustic remarks were usually reserved for the spokespersons of apartheid and big business. The aggressive tone of her (1978) response in The Review of African Political Economy to Archie Mafeje's (1978) article on the political aftermath of the 1976 Soweto protests is a notable exception. They knew each either well; both were members of the editorial collective of ROAPE.

Mafeje's paper provided a brief description of the organization of the Soweto protests, discussed the class origins of the leaders of the movement and analysed the reaction to Soweto by the leaders of different political movements in exile. Of the movements discussed, the ANC and SACP are part of the governing alliance today; the others have weakened radically or disappeared. Now we know that the flood of young militants leaving South Africa after Soweto would ultimately strengthen the ranks of the ANC and SACP in exile, and particularly of MK, the ANC's armed wing. In 1978 this outcome was not at all clear.

Mafeje's paper included a number of interesting discussions. He observed that the students were initially slow to link with workers and argued that the eventual participation of the latter in support of student demands in the general strike was the central victory of the process. He observed that urban students were generally of working-class background whereas rural products of church boarding schools were more likely to be of petty bourgeois origin. He related this to the fact that migrant workers were not just workers but also peasants. He concluded that the Black Consciousness movement thus better reflected the class heterogeneity of the student movement than did organizations tied to a conventional Marxist-Leninist class analysis, i.e. the SACP. In such a context, he suggested, a change of strategy was needed. With such a heterogeneous class basis it would be dangerous to put the demands of the armed struggle ahead of the need for political struggle. He argued that the leadership of all the existing organizations was too conservative to entertain a strategic shift and suggested that a new Marxist-Leninist organization could emerge from a merger of the new Left fractions within the black liberation movements.

In First's rejoinder (1978) she denied any appetite for acrimonious exchange, suggesting that she wished rather to sharpen issues. That she did, laying them out at the beginning of her essay much more clearly than Mafeje did:

  1. the analysis of the character of the student movement and struggle, and the relationship of the student movement to the national and working class organizations, and, by extension, the role of classes, and the class leadership of the revolution;
  2. the relationship of internal to external forms of organization;
  3. the relationship of the armed struggle to political struggles;
  4. the national revolution and the socialist revolution, that is, notions of two-stage revolution.

What is interesting in First's response, however, is that although she was scathing about parts of Mafeje's analysis (e.g. anthropological romanticism about Zulu culture, mechanistic reductionist use of class categories), she really agreed with him about much of the substance of his answers to these questions. She also thought that the rural base of migrant labour had consequences for class politics; she was concerned with the difficulties in linking political organizations in exile with internal struggles; she worried that the demands of military struggle risked undercutting political education and recognition and support for new internal forms of alliance and struggle; she considered two-stage revolution an unhelpful way of thinking about the relation between short-term and long-term demands in the struggle against apartheid.

The underlying disagreement not outlined in her four issues was really over the role of the political intellectual in revolutionary movements, implicit in First's indictment (1978: 97) of Mafeje's ‘revolutionary abstinence from struggles which are not revolutionary enough…’. First's central objection was Mafeje's call for unity through rupture, the formation of a new Marxist-Leninist party within the black liberation movement. Not only was he declaring the SACP and the ANC immovable, Mafeje's language suggested that non-racialism needed to be abandoned. He was also advancing his political critique as an independent gadfly in the pages of an academic journal rather than through debates within the ANC and SACP, the central political organizations of the anti-apartheid movement. Yet we know that First's own experience with internal critique around some of the questions raised by Mafeje left her at the outer boundaries of the SACP.

This question of how intellectuals participate in a social movement and how/where to raise critique should not be relegated to the archives of Marxist-Leninist organizations. Some of the most successful of the ‘new social movements’ such as Via Campesina and MST limit organizational criticism in print and public debate. The SACP is today part of a governing alliance that is certainly in need of clear and mobilizing political critique. Scholars of social movements are asked to provide an empirically grounded analysis of their present dynamics, not just normative pictures of what they would like to be and how they propose to get there. For activists such an analysis is undoubtedly useful, but it may not always be helpful for it to appear publicly in print.

THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography

It is not difficult to see what Ruth First took from the development studies of the 1970s: an interdisciplinary approach that gave great importance to political economy, a concern with emancipatory struggles, a creative approach to Marxism that did not treat it as a dogmatic deductive system and studies of practical questions of planned change. What has she given to it that is still applicable after thirty years? Above all an enduring set of questions and a systematic method for addressing them, embodied not just in her own writing, but in that of those who were taught by her, worked with her, argued with her, heard her speak and read what she wrote.

  1. 1

    I write this as one of those people. I worked under Ruth First's direction as a lecturer and researcher at the CEA. She taught me about Southern Africa, about politics, about organizing collective work, how to put together reports quickly using cut-and-pin and about the joys of friendship, laughter, good conversation and small beautiful things. Aquino de Bragança, our director at the CEA, Pallo Jordan, an ANC cadre (now an MP) who had come for a UNESCO sponsored conference on problems and priorities in social science training in Southern Africa, and I were gathered around her desk when the bomb exploded.

  2. 2

    Pinnock attributes this text, found among her papers, to First, though no author is given. I think he is right to do so because I remember her giving a related lecture on using class analysis in forming alliances in the CEA Development Course. She felt quite strongly that the ANC in Maputo needed to pay more attention to the difference between the way one used propaganda in Europe and North America and in (then) frontline cities like Maputo.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography
  • Delavignette, R. (1950) Freedom and Authority in French West Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • First, R. (1956/2012) ‘Pass Books for Women Issued in Wynberg’, in D. Pinnock (ed.) Ruth First: Voices of Liberation, pp. 412. Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • First, R. (1957) ‘The Bus Boycott’, Africa South 1: 5564.
  • First, R. (1959) ‘Exposure: The Farm Labour Scandal’. Johannesburg: New Age Pamphlet.
  • First, R. (1961) ‘The Gold of Migrant Labour’, Africa South in Exile 5(3): 731 (April-June).
  • First, R. (1965) 117 Days. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • First, R. (1970) The Barrel of a Gun, Political Power in Africa and the Coup d'Etat. London: Penguin Press.
  • First, R. (1978) ‘After Soweto: A Response’, Review of African Political Economy 5(11): 93100.
  • First, R. (1983) Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant. Brighton: Harvester Press.
  • First, R. (n.d./2012) ‘Revolutionary Propaganda at Home and Abroad: Discussion Guide Note’, in D. Pinnock (ed.) Ruth First: Voices of Liberation, pp. 10217. Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • First, R. and A. Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner: A Biography. New York and London: Andre Deutsch and Schocken.
  • Hunter, M. (2010) ‘Beyond the Male-migrant: South Africa's Long History of Health Geography and the Contemporary AIDS Pandemic’, Health & Place 16(1): 2533.
  • Mafeje, A. (1978) ‘Soweto and its Aftermath’, Review of African Political Economy 5(11): 93100.
  • Pinnock, D. (2012) ‘Her Life’, in D. Pinnock (ed.) Ruth First: Voices of Liberation, pp. 130. Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • Wuyts, M. (1981) ‘The Mechanization of Present-Day Mozambican Agriculture’, Development and Change 12(1): 127.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. INTRODUCTION: POLITICAL WRITING IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
  3. THE WORKING LIFE
  4. CLASS ANALYSIS: AN ENDURING APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS
  5. BUILDING MOVEMENTS: BEYOND THE CELEBRATION OF RESISTANCE
  6. THE AGRARIAN QUESTION: THEORY DEVELOPS THROUGH CONFRONTATION WITH REALITY
  7. CLASS STRUGGLES CARRY WITH THEM PARTICULAR HISTORIES: POST-COLONIAL POLITICS IN AFRICA
  8. CLASS, RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF ALLIANCE
  9. RACE, CLASS AND THE PLACE OF CRITIQUE IN POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
  10. THE LEGACY: WHAT SHE FOUND, WHAT SHE GAVE
  11. REFERENCES
  12. Biography
  • Bridget O'Laughlin, retired from the ISS, is a research associate of IESE (Institute of Social and Economic Studies), Maputo. Her mailing address is: ISS, PO Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands; e-mail: brolaughlin@iss.nl. Her current research interest is rural health in Southern Africa. Her latest publication is ‘Land, Labour and the Production of Affliction in Rural Southern Africa’, Journal of Agrarian Change 13(1): 175–96 (2013).